Have you ever heard a news reporter or commentator say the Catholic Church is out of touch? That it is behind the times? That it needs to make itself more relevant to young Americans or it may disappear? Forget for a moment that only about 6% of the world's Catholics live in the United States or that the Church has been around for nearly 2,000 years (...surviving persecution, schisms, war, the reformation) because there is another institution in the U.S. that may really be facing these challenges.
Last month the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released an excellent study about immigration reform based on a survey of nearly 4,500 respondents. The survey listed a variety of issues and asked respondents "I'd like to ask you about priorities for President Obama and Congress this year. As I read from a list, please tell me if you think each should be the highest priority, high but not the highest, or a lower priority." These issues included:
- Reforming the nation's immigration system
- Improving the job situation
- Enacting stricter gun control laws
- Dealing with the moral breakdown of the country
- Reducing the budget deficit
- Changing the federal income tax system to make it more fair
- Enacting legislation to address climate change
As the PRRI researchers noted, "Majorities of Americans report that improving the job situation (65%) and reducing the budget deficit (56%) should be the highest priorities for President Obama and Congress" (p.6). None of the other issues listed obtained a majority. In the figure below I have taken the issues from the PRRI poll and simplified their wording for searchers in the Lexis-Nexis news archive for the last year. The blue line on the figure shows the percentage of Americans who think the issue should be "highest priority" for the government from the PRRI poll. The bars represent how many news stories or columns were written about the topic in The New York Times (orange) and The Washington Post (red) in the last year according to Lexis-Nexis. The issues Americans care most about get significantly less coverage than issues not considered by as many to be a "high priority."
The PRRI survey is no outlier. Gallup and others regularly ask Americans about what issues are most important to them. A summary of Gallup's recent findings is in the figure below. Their work is interesting because it is based on an open-ended question without a list of items to choose from. Collectively, 57% of Americans cited an economic issue. If you've looked at newspapers or newscasts in recent weeks you've likely read or heard a lot about gun control in the most prominent of places. Yet, only 4% of Americans cited this as the "most important" problem facing the country last month.
What effect could this be having? Newspapers have seen diminishing subscriptions, sales, and advertising for years. Many, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, are exploring the paywall business model to stay afloat. This model produced a minor positive effect in the last year but may generate sufficient revenue in the long run. The conventional wisdom is that this sector's troubles are entirely related to technological change. "It's just a transition from print to digital." But is there anything else going on? I think there is and as shown above its about content. Some editors and reporters seem not to realize that even a large majority of Americans may agree or disagree with a particular policy but that doesn't mean that the policy is important or interesting to them. They seem to be failing to ask "What do my readers or viewers really want to know about?" People are unlikely to pay for content that is not highly relevant or interesting to them. For example, nearly nine in ten Americans (including me) support mandatory background checks for gun purchases. But that does not mean this same number of people want to read a news story about the issue every day. Especially when many of those potential readers are struggling with other issues that get such less frequent and prominent coverage.
Pope Francis recently called upon Catholics and others to devote more attention and effort to fighting poverty. In a previous post I noted that the Catholic Church in the United States was more likely than either political party to talk about this issue during the 2012 election campaign while the Democrats and Republicans almost exclusively addressed the "middle class." In a similar fashion the The New York Times and The Washington Post are failing to sufficiently cover this issue. It is the case that 106 stories or columns were written about poverty in the last 12 months (April 2012 to April 2013) in both papers combined. At the same time, for every story about poverty about four were written about the issue of same-sex marriage (402 in total). I'm not saying the latter is unimportant by any means. There are many who feel strongly about the issue and are deeply engaged in this debate. But there are likely more Americans who will struggle to feed their families tonight (government estimates indicate there are some 46 million people in America living in poverty). The lack of coverage about poverty by the media is not just a simple artifact of the two papers examined above. Other more systematic studies of the news media concur (1, 2, 3).
American news seems to be increasingly crafted for the viewing pleasure of those sitting atop Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs—the more well-to-do "post-materialists" who are most interested in the "wedge" or cultural issues and don't want to be bothered by news about the poor or the economy in general (...the type of person who expresses confusion at how so many aren't as concerned as they are about the environment without realizing that if you don't know where your next meal is coming from the size of your carbon footprint just doesn't often cross your mind). Reversing growing levels of poverty would require a focus on jobs and it is no surprise that this is considered "high priority" and among the "most important" problems facing the country by the American public. The United States has been experiencing one of the longest stretches of sustained high unemployment even as the size of the labor force (people who have or are seeking jobs) has fallen to 1979 levels (...there are 94 million more people in the U.S now than in 1979). Yet neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post could manage to write at least 75 stories and columns on unemployment in the last year?
"Advocacy news" on cable television may also be part of this sector's problems. Pew studies have documented the highly partisan nature of Fox News and MSNBC programming and that the latter is much more focused on opinion than news (...viewers of both networks are less likely than others to be knowledgeable and informed). Now a forthcoming study by Princeton political scientist Markus Prior indicates that these outlets are essentially becoming the media hangouts for partisan activists at either end of the spectrum while many in the political middle are off watching The Food Network, ESPN, Dancing with the Stars, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc. As Prior concludes, "The main danger of this more partisan media environment is not the polarization of ordinary Americans, but a growing disconnect between increasingly partisan activists and largely centrist and modestly involved masses. The median voter has never been so bored" (p. 36).
MSNBC and Fox News ratings are a frequent topic of discussion among media watchers. Which network is gaining or losing ground? Few pay attention to the absolute numbers viewers compared to what everyone else is watching. There are some YouTube vloggers who film in their living rooms who have more regular viewers than The Rachel Maddow Show or Hannity. At the same time it apparently has not always be about ratings. MSNBC's recent decision to replace evening host Ed Schultz with weekender Chris Hayes drew the following reaction from the usually friendly Huffington Post:
"The change may be one of tone rather than numbers. Schultz's ratings have been solid — he was the second-highest-rated host on the network in February — but his barnstorming, Midwestern, labor-friendly brand of populist liberalism has come to look more and more at odds with the increasingly elite and wonkish tone taking hold on the rest of MSNBC."
I'm not sure if there is any better recent example of the media's post-materialst focus beating out the more old-fashioned materialist-centered concerns about labor and poverty. The business models of MSNBC and Fox News (or for that matter The Washington Post and The New York Times) appear to require content that most appeals to the "partisan activist segment" of the population. Will this always exist in the numbers needed for the industry?
CARA's research among U.S. Catholics reveals a particularly troubling segment for the news media that is coming of age. The Millennial Generation (those born 1982 or later) is simply not picking up the "news" habit like their parents or grandparents. Many may never "grow up" to be partisan news junkies that the current popular model of news will need to survive. The figure below shows the number of U.S. adult Catholics (self-identified), by generation, that subscribed to a daily newspaper in 2005 and 2012 (the full report for CARA's national survey from which this is drawn is available here).
The hope among many in the news media is that the figure above only represents the technological shift with younger people just preferring to get their news online. "It doesn't matter if they don't subscribe as long as they visit our website, click on ads, and perhaps pay for some content." CARA's research does show that younger Catholics are more likely to use online news sources than print (television sources still hold the attention of a majority). In fact, twice as many Catholic Millennials simply rely on "word of mouth" for the news rather than a print publication. Yet even among those who use of the "internet" as a primary source, some aren't necessarily utilizing a traditional media source or site and instead may be following links to many sources through Facebook or Twitter or simply watching visually compelling footage on YouTube.
Digging deeper, nearly four in ten Millennials (38 percent) say they simply do not have the time to read magazines or newspapers. More in each older generation makes time for this (i.e., they developed a habit).
We also asked adult Catholics about how often they used different sources for news and information specifically about the Catholic Church as well as how reliable they thought these sources were in covering the Church. It is no surprise that they would choose to more regularly use sources considered more reliable. As shown in the figure below, secular newspapers are considered "somewhat" or "very" reliable sources about the Church by less than four in ten (38%). Catholics are much more likely to use and find reliable sources that are local and produced by Church institutions.
Of course you can also find many stories in the media about the American public's declining confidence in institutions from the Church to Congress. But what often does not get reported in these stories is that confidence in the press has fallen faster and to lower depths than many other institutions. Are Catholics losing confidence and interest in the news? The figure below potentially reveals the most important trend. The news media isn't simply having trouble with their business model in a digital transition. It's really losing the attention of the youngest generation in print, television, and online.
Consumers who aren't even paying attention to your free product certainly are unlikely to want to pay for it online and this may be part of the explanation for the mismatch between the evolving focus of the news media and what American's really care about. Mass media no longer exists. In an age of narrowcasting with hundreds of content choices, traditional journalism appears to be putting most of their chips on the "news junkie"—a highly partisan and higher income consumer (Prior estimates that this represents about 10% to 15% of the adult population). It is increasingly catering to their interests and worldview. As this transition is occurring Pew research concludes that, "Nearly one-third—31%—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to" and that only four news stories managed to attract "very close" attention from a majority of the public.
What are the masses looking for online (other than the unmentionable)? I checked Google Trends last week on both Monday and Friday. There wasn't much of any news in a traditional sense to be found among top searches. On Monday the top search items included Finding Dory (sequel to Finding Nemo announced), Lindsay Lohan (her April Fool's Twitter prank), Shain Gandee (death of an MTV reality show star), and MLB (opening day). On Friday searches led off with Evil Dead (horror film release), Kamala Harris (the President's comments about her physical appearance), and Facebook Home (an Android application). Journalism might be even worse off focusing on what Americans look for on Google!
CARA's 2012 media use survey revealed that Catholics were most interested in online content about their faith that focused on the "history of the Catholic Church." At the time I thought this was kind of odd. Not what I expected. People are really looking for history? But now it is more apparent to me after the success of The History Channel's The Bible that there is much broader interest in religious historical content out there. In fact the series drove U.S. Google searches for "Bible" to a nine year high.
My hunch is that there is also a greater desire among the masses to hear more about the issues they find most important to them. Of course there is also considerable desire for anything that is generally interesting and entertaining as well. A much broader audience is within reach for media outlets that are now catering their coverage to the partisan activist (...I am a news junkie myself but I apparently lack the genetic trait of partisanship 1, 2). It will require, I believe, reporting more on the millions of Americans facing poverty, unemployment, and/or hunger. I think Pope Francis' strong focus on poverty is part of what is driving his appeal in the U.S. among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The news media seemingly never passes on an opportunity to note that the Catholic Church (...or some other religion) is "out of touch," losing America's youth, and that the future is bleak. From now on it might be wise for religious leaders to respond to this by noting that the messenger of this news faces much more daunting challenges in each respect.
Updates... 4/12: I'm not used to writing an update only a few hours after an original post but when I went to tweet this post I found that the biggest news of the day on social media was people literally demanding the media cover a story. "Gosnell" was trending all over social media referring to the Kermit Gosnell murder case. I checked Lexis-Nexis and indeed the story has been largely ignored by the national media. There were a few reports when the case started but little if any reporting on the gruesome details emerging in the trial. That is until Mollie Hemingway over at GetReligion confronted Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff on why she had ignored the story and set off a social media storm (see: BusinessInsider). Soon coverage began at USA Today, The Atlantic, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, and CBS News. An editor of the The Washington Post pledged: "We believe the story is deserving of coverage by our own staff, and we intend to send a reporter for the resumption of the trial next week. In retrospect, we should have sent a reporter sooner." Maybe the news media just needs to be more directly reminded what Americans want to read about? It is an interesting case study.
4/25: Also of note, The National Journal (and The Huffington Post) recently reported that only four legislators showed up to a Joint Economic Committee hearing on long-term unemployment. Sadly there may have been even fewer media there. I cannot find any coverage of the hearing from the The New York Times nor The Washington Post. Maybe unemployment isn't "buzzy" enough? Unemployment remains the #2 ranked most important problem by Gallup (following the "economy in general"). The percentage of U.S. Catholics with "hardly any confidence at all" in the press is at an all time high of 45% (compared to 12% in 1973).
4/29: I've also spent some time looking at how newspapers react to rising unemployment rates and poverty rates. The latter was quite depressing as The New York Times actually reports less on poverty when the poverty rate increases! But this may in part be related to the "soft" nature of measuring poverty. The news appears to respond much more routinely to a rising unemployment rate. In the figures below I show scatter plots for the number of stories on unemployment in The New York Times and The Washington Post (vertical or y-axis) relative to the actual unemployment rate by year (horizontal or x-axis). The color of the dots represents the party of the president in a given year (...the president most often receives blame or accolade for economic results). When unemployment is at 4% one could expect about 13 stories to be written about this issue in either paper in a year. At 7% unemployment one could expect 25 stories. At 9.5% unemployment one would likely see about 68 stories to be written on unemployment in a year (i.e., about one every five to six days... but there is an important caveat noted below).
I've also spent some time looking at recent cable news ratings. As shown in the figure below, the tragic Boston Marathon bombings and devastating Texas fertilizer plant explosion appear to have drawn many viewers looking for breaking news content to CNN and Fox News during prime time. As noted in the main post, a recent study indicates these two outlets more represent the news driven content on cable ("factual reporting" as Pew's researchers call it) compared to MSNBC's heavy reliance on commentary.
MSNBC appears to now be retaking the #2 ratings spot from CNN as the news cycle returns to a more normal rhythm with only the "news junkies" tuning in. At the same time, something interesting is happening with CNN's Anderson Cooper attracting significantly more viewers than MSNBC's Chris Hayes at 8 p.m. In this time slot, when one also adds Fox News commentary from ratings leader Bill O'Reilly, there may be no starker contrast between the factual news model and partisan commentary model of journalism on cable television. I don't often "take sides" on anything but I will admit I'm rooting for Anderson Cooper (and factual news ...as Nate Silver once said, "punditry is fundamentally useless"). I hope cable news eventually evolves into a medium that more honestly and objectively covers the news and topics that are most important to people's daily lives. That may provide the best ratings and revenue and certainly a lot more dignity.
Photo above courtesy of Thomas Hawk from Flickr Commons.